Fork in the road

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With proper consumer education, the supply chain can benefit from two distinct markets for differently sized perennials.

February 6, 2017

In my June Tip Jar column, I talked about how frustrating it is to see plant selection and breeding falling down the “all plants need to fit on a truck shipping rack” rabbit hole, thus presenting consumers with many plants no taller than 18 inches. I reminisced about statuesque plants billowing in the wind in many famous gardens throughout the world and how they’d be no more if we continue with these miniscule maximum height rules.

In early 2016, I had an epiphany, an idea to save and bring back the use of tall(er) plants. While walking the fields of one of our perennial breeders, I suddenly saw the fork in the road that I always hoped we’d get to. There were clearly two types of perennials – echinacea to be exact. There were the perfectly packaged, 12- to 18-inch tall by 8- to 10-inch wide, full of flowers, ready-for-the-shipping-rack plants, and then there was a whole different group. It became clear to me that we needed to split our lines, go rogue, and introduce plants that didn’t fit the shipping model.

Then I started thinking, was there a way to also sell regular sized (and larger) perennials and shrubs to the market? Who would we market them to? Would consumers be interested or would this simply be a line for designers and contractors? Why not both?

Garden retailers in the Netherlands have two very distinct markets. There’s the perfectly finished, in full bloom, cash-and-carry market where you buy plants in larger sizes, ready to make an instant impact on your porch, patio, or in your garden. Then there’s the “I’m here to buy plants to make a new garden or bed” market. The two could not be more different. The “new garden or bed market” garden centers sell plants that are not necessarily in bloom or in season, and guess what? They sell them in smaller pots at super reasonable prices so consumers can buy many at one time.

Most consumers can’t afford to buy 20 1-gallon perennials at once. That could cost $200 or more, depending on what they buy. But they can afford to buy 20 perennials if they cost $3, right? The industry has glammed onto the “new perennial garden” style, where hundreds of plants are planted in relatively small spaces. That means we can sell a lot more plants of one kind to consumers who want to install this type of design at their place. Of course we need to help them lay it out and get it planted correctly, so some education in the form of clever packaging, tags or signage would be beneficial. But that’s a topic for another day.

Could you sell a line of perennials specifically chosen for gardens and not for chain store shipping racks? How would you separate them? How would you display them? Would a display garden planted in the “new perennial garden” style help? Short answer: of course it would, but you must be willing to install one to boost sales. How would we train consumers to buy plants that are not in flower? We’ve tried this before, and it didn’t turn out so well, hence the reason we are back to selling plants in full bloom.

However, wouldn’t it be nice to sell people more plants? If they usually buy one 1-gallon perennial, or even the designer recommended three, that’s $30 to $60 retail. What if they bought 30, 2-inch pots at $3 each for a small, 30-square-foot garden section? They might even buy more if we make it easy to understand and load in the car – or we can ship it to them. That seems like a bit more money and lots more plants to me, and that bodes well with my whole purpose in life these days – to get consumers to want to garden, enjoy gardening and, of course, buy more plants.

Angela Treadwell-Palmer founded and co-owns Plants Nouveau LLC., a company that specializes in introducing and marketing new plants to the nursery industry. She’s been around the world, experiencing world-famous gardens and remote areas looking for new ideas and exciting plants.